Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Cinder

Cinder
Marissa Meyer
Feiwel & Friends, 2012  400 pages
Grades 7-Up
Fairy Tale/Science Fiction
Lunar Chronicles Series

Marissa Meyers joins the ranks of authors telling updated versions of traditional fairy tales, this time focusing on the tale of Cinderella with a sci-fi twist. Cinder is the best mechanic in her futuristic city in the far east in a land that's part of a world-wide united government, yet still ruled by a benevolent emperor. Plague is sweeping through the world and is hitting her country hard. Cinder has a terrible secret: she is a cyborg (a human with robot parts), which is the lowest class of people in her society and she serves as little more than a servant to her stepmother and sisters. Cinder brings in the sole income to the household, all while being mentally abused and treated as less than equal. Her only friends are a robot servant and the nicer of her two stepsisters. The action begins as Cinder is manning her booth at the market and the handsome prince (and heir to the throne) stops by to drop off a favorite robot in need of repairs. The two strike up a friendship, which leads to a flirtation and possible romance. Meanwhile, Cinder's good stepsister is struck down with the plague.  Cinder is "volunteered" by her stepmother for plague research, which means a certain death, when strange medical evidence is discovered. Cinder is immune to the disease and, therefore, has an important contribution to make in discovering an antidote. But is it too late? The emperor, who is gravely ill, succumbs to the disease and dies and Cinder's sister is hanging on by a thread. The evil Lunar Queen arrives from the moon wielding her glamour and magic, looking to forge an alliance with the earth by marrying Prince (now Emperor) Kai and, eventually, taking over the whole planet. What can a simple cyborg mechanic do to save her planet and Kai from the queen's evil clutches? Further surprises await Cinder, giving her more power than she knew she had, shaping her destiny, and leading her to the next installment in the series: Scarlet.

I love reworkings of fairy tales, especially when an author brings something new to the genre. Meyer does just that in her Lunar Chronicles series. Cinderella goes sci-fi: the slipper becomes a mechanical foot, the carriage becomes a classic car, the little furry friends become robots, and the fairy godmother becomes a doctor. Still, the hopeful essence remains, as Cinder discovers the truth about herself and finds confidence and power where none previously existed. This story will appeal to teenagers who like their dystopian fiction on the "girlie" side (Matched, Divergent). Cinder is not a push-over. She is independent and fierce, yet has a soft underbelly. Although she is a cyborg, she has human emotions and feelings, yet must live within the discrimination of her kind. This may translate to teens, demonstrating patience and understanding in dealing with those who appear to be different. There is action and adventure throughout the book, making it a fast read and keeping the pages turning. Also, filled with science and technology, this book would appeal to "techie' kids of which we have many in today's society. Not necessarily great literature, this book is a solid piece of writing for teens and has proven popular. We can't keep this series on the shelves of my library. Its one of those series that I call "book-crack": you can't put it down and then you have to pick up the next installment. Because of my job, I do not have the luxury of reading past book one in a series. That said, I am on my library's waiting list for Scarlet and am sure to devour it as I have the series opener.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Orbiting Jupiter

Orbiting Jupiter
Gary Schmidt
Clarion, 2015  183 pgs.
Grades 6-8
Realistic Fiction

Newbery and Printz Honor author scored a National Book Award this year for this sad tale of loss, overcoming the past, and redemption. Sixth-grade Maine farm-boy, Jack's family agrees to take in a troubled foster eighth-grade boy named Joseph. Joseph was given drugs and attacked a teacher while under the influence, sending him to juvie, where he was somehow abused by the other boys. But this is not his biggest secret. Joseph, though only in eighth grade, is a father. The baby, Jupiter, has been put in foster care, awaiting adoption, and Joseph is not allowed by the law to see her. He is dealing with the loss of his former girlfriend, the hole in his heart where his baby is missing, former abuse from his father and juvie boys, and adjusting to a new school, where everyone knows his history and has made blind judgments about him. Joseph takes to the routine and peace of farm life and slowly begins to trust Jack and his family. At last he opens up about his past and they start to merge as a family, finally choosing to help Joseph connect with Jupiter. The legal process is slow. When the social worker accidentally slips the town where Jupiter is staying, Joseph runs away, trudging through the harsh Maine winter to find her. The family is eventually reunited and all seems well. Peace is destroyed when an unexpected and most unwelcome guest shows-up at the house, threatening the tranquility that Joseph has finally achieved, driving the novel to its surprising and heart-wrenching conclusion.

Gary Schmidt is a consistently excellent author. He does not stick to a style or genre, but does stay with an intended age and always maintains a high level of quality in his work. Orbiting Jupiter did not win the National Book Award for nothing. It is a well-crafted emotional journey from beginning to end. The Maine setting is an integrate feature to the book and serves as a desolate and snowy backdrop for the morose tale. It is interesting that Schmidt chooses to tell Joseph's story through the voice of Jack, adding a further dimension to the narrative. We peel the layers away from Joseph, as Jack learns more about his new brother and we feel the love and loss right along with him. I must warn the reader: this book is a tear-jerker. There are many opportunities for tears, but the ending will have even the most most hardened-heart breaking for the characters. Yes, there are deaths (don't the best books contain at least one?), but it isn't a young girl dying of cancer and isn't the main focal point of the book, so I didn't roll my eyes muttering "not again". Best of all, this is a book featuring boys and meant for their readership, although girls will like it too. It also will work well for classroom use, since the novel contains foreshadowing, imagery, and anti-bullying themes, as well as offering a cautionary message about teen (tween?) pregnancy. I appreciate how the novel did not get muddled up in other story lines. It was a straight plot, beautifully constructed and executed. Gary Schmidt can't swing a cat without winning an award, so it's bound to get something at the Newbery/Printz Awards announcements in January.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Listen, Slowly

Listen, Slowly
Thanhha Lai
HarperCollins, 2016  260 pgs
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Lai's sophomore novel returns to the Vietnamese/American experience, this time in a more contemporary setting than her National Book Award winner and Newbery honor book Inside Out and Back Again. Mai (when at home)/Mia (with friends) must forgo her summer of lazing on the beach with her friends in her California coastal hometown to accompany her doctor father and grandmother, Ba, to Vietnam. Dad is returning to his boyhood home to fix cleft palates in children to poor to pay for the procedure. Ba is on a mission to try and find her long-lost husband; a missing soldier from the Vietnam War. Mia is not happy to babysit Ba and is ill prepared for the humidity, bugs, and chaos of her ancestral homeland. While Dad takes care of medical business, Ba and Mai travel to the village of Ba's youth to reconnect with family and track down Ong, the missing grandpa. Mai becomes reluctant friends with Ut, a tomboy more interested in frogs than traditional pursuits and Minh, a boy who is studying at an American school and serves as Mai's interpreter. Meanwhile, Mai rediscovers the lost relationship she shared in her preschool days with her grandmother, as the long-forgotten Vietnamese language starts to reenter her consciousness. The detective sent to find Ong returns to the village with Ong's guard from the war, when he was held prisoner. The guard has information about Ong's time spent under his care and knows of a message left for his family. Ba is determined to see this message, which leads them to the busy city of Saigon and hidden tunnels formally used to house the Vietnamese army. Mai must learn to reconcile her California present with her Vietnamese roots and to own what is really important in life, as she stops checking her Facebook page and becomes Ba's partner and support on their journey of realization.

Inside Out and Back Again explores the immigrant experience of a Vietnamese family escaping the war raging their country in 1975, written in heartfelt narrative verse. Now, Lai considers the next generation, this time written in a traditional novel format. We travel along with Mai as she experiences the land of her ancestors, as foreign to her as it would be to us. Her mind is on home and everything she is missing. She follows on-line the exploits of her best friend, who is hanging out with her crush and may not be as good of a friend as Mai always thought. As time in Vietnam increases, so does Mai's understanding of her Grandmother, as she slowly falls into her roots and learns to adapt. From food to clothing, Mai becomes a proper Vietnamese girl by the end of the book. Clothing is not the only change: Mai also grows up, becomes less of a brat, and begins to appreciate her grandmother and support her on the journey. This is a book about learning how to communicate and how to properly listen. By books end, Mai is understanding and speaking Vietnamese and is starting to teach her new friend Ut English, as the two girls also reach an understanding on a personal level. This story will be universally enjoyed by both boys and girls and would work well in a classroom setting. My only negative is that sometimes I became confused with the Vietnamese names and perhaps a small glossary in the back would have been helpful explaining ways of addressing people, which is very important to this culture, as reflected in the book. The town I work in houses many first and second generation American children. Although we do not boast a significant Vietnamese population, this story would translate to any child looking to connect to their roots or to better understand parents and grandparents who emigrated from a different land. There is a connection with the current state of America, as we absorb war refuges from the middle east. It also will expose readers to the realities of the Vietnam War on the Vietnamese people and the land and culture of this beautiful country. We learn about Vietnam right along with Mai and it personally made me want to visit the country for myself. Or at least take the bus into New York to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

I Crawl Through It

I Crawl Through It
A.S. King
Little Brown, 2015  319 pgs.
Grades 9-Up
Acclaimed teen author, A.S. King, offers her most ambitious novel to date as she stretches conventional boundaries and forces the reader to think in different ways. This new novel traces the lives of four troubled and unique teenage friends. Stanzi (we never learn this character's real name) is living with a personality split since a family tragedy several years ago. She has escaped into biology, specifically dissecting frogs endlessly, and physically finds it impossible to remove her lab coat. Her best friend, China, has been date raped and now her body has turned inside out, wearing a different part of her digestive system on the outside. Their friend, Lansdale, lives in a house with a rotating cast of young step-mothers and her hair grows whenever she lies. Finally, we meet Gustav, who is building an invisible helicopter. The four young people live in a small town and attend high school amidst the daily interruptions of evacuations and bomb threats. Who is calling in the threats? All four teens are suspects. Meanwhile they all interact with the strange naked man who lives in the bushes, telling truths and dispersing painted letters. Finally, Gustav's helicopter is completed and he and Stanzi escape for an adventure to a mythical place, where they meet more interesting characters. Eventually, all four friends find themselves on the road to healing, as life returns to normalcy and the bomb threats cease. 

I am a big fan of A.S. King. I read her first book, Dust of 100 Dogs almost by accident and thought it was one of the most weird and wonderful books I have ever read. Since then, I've gone on to read other books by her and have been awed by her writing style and creative plots. This is her most unconventional novel in a long line of unconventional novels. It describes itself as "surrealistic" and this is true. In fact, it is hard to discern what is plot fact and what is surrealistic metaphor. There is a plot and it moves along. I was never bored by this book, although it did not always make sense to me. The writing style is similar to that of Francesca Lia Block's Weetsie Bat series and it remains poetic and beautifully penned throughout. Readers will either "get it" and love it--or not. I think this book will confuse and make many teen readers uncomfortable. Adult readers, especially intellectual ones, will potentially appreciate it more. After over twenty years reading books for young people professionally, I tend to read like a young person. I did not have the patience for this book and will admit that I did not fully understand it. That said, I will acknowledge that it is beautifully written and will be beloved by those deeper and more thoughtful readers than myself. Today's social climate is reflected in the emphasis on standardized testing in education and threatened violence in the schools, making the story relevant and contemporary. I Crawl Through It will most certainly win awards this year and has risen the bar, yet again, on what constitutes teen fiction.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Echo

Echo
Pam Munoz Ryan
Scholastic, 2015  592 pgs
Grades 5-8
Historical Fiction/Fantasy

Master storyteller, Pam Munoz Ryan pens perhaps her greatest work to date, a blend of historical fiction and fairy tale. Our story starts with a prequel, featuring a boy from distant Germany named Otto. While lost in the woods, Otto discovers a mysterious book relating a tale, which comes to life as he meets three bewitched sisters and receives an enchanted harmonica. The harmonica becomes the thread in the book connecting the three main sections, all with separate stories and characters. We travel ahead to the rise of Nazi Germany, where Friedrich is facing persecution for a birthmark on his face and his tendency to be different. He and his musician father must flee the Nazi's before they are exterminated as enemies of the state. Friedrich, a natural musician, must leave behind his beloved harmonica in order to risk everything to save his father and escape to safety. The harmonica next travels to a music store in Pennsylvania, USA during the Great Depression. Orphans Mike and Frankie face separation and forced labor when they miraculously are adopted by a rich lady and befriended by her lawyer. What appears to be a dream come true turns dark as Mike realizes that the rich lady doesn't really want them, especially himself as the older boy. Mike plans to leave with his newly purchased harmonica to join a famous boys harmonica band, leaving Frankie to enjoy a comfortable life of luxury, when, unexpectedly, tragedy strikes. Our harmonica travels across the US to a small town in rural California during WWII. Ivy is missing her brother, who is serving overseas, and escapes into her music as a means of coping with the loss and the prejudice facing her Mexican family and her Japanese neighbors, who have been sent to deportment camps. Finally, all three stories and characters are brought together in an unexpected place by the power of music, where the spell is broken and the three bewitched sisters from the introduction are at last set free.

I'm a big fan of Pam Munoz Ryan and, in my humble opinion, this is her masterpiece. She manages to combine three (and a half) powerful stories, all reflecting crucial and difficult  events in the mid twentieth century. The history is powerful, present, and accurate. The reader will empathize with the characters and experience their struggles, living through these turbulent times in our recent history. The fantasy is gentle, except for the fairy tale introduced at the beginning of the book and tying everything together at the end. It serves more as a backdrop, turning what could be a brutally harsh book into more of a lyrical fable. The real star of the story is the special harmonica, which changes every life who owns it and, finally, literally saves someone's life. The power of music is a reoccurring theme to the book and is what not only unites the characters, but helps to define and save them. I listened to this book on audio, which I would highly recommend. The production utilizes different narrators for each portion of the book and is peppered with brilliant harmonica music, as well as piano and cello where appropriate to the plot. Hearing the harmonica music during the narration greatly enhanced my reading experience. This is a high quality book that is showing up on many people's "best books of the year" lists--and for good reason. One possible negative is that it is a little long for the target audience. Because the book is really three books in one, I didn't personally find the length to be a problem. All three plots are riveting, beautifully written, and move quickly. Unexpected plot turns and cliff-hangers will further lead readers to the next section of the volume. The conclusion ends a bit too unrealistically happy for my liking, but young readers will be very satisfied and, after all, this book is for them. A lyrical sympathy that deserves a standing ovation.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Voyagers: Project Alpha

Voyagers: Project Alpha
D.J. MacHale
Random House, 2015  219 pgs.
Grades 3-6
Science Fiction/Adventure
Voyagers Series #1

D.J. MacHale, best known for the Pendragon Series, pens a series opener sure to appeal to fans of The Thirty-Nine Clues series and science fiction in general. The earth is running out of energy. An energy source has been detected way out in outer space. The space travel involved in retrieval destroys adult metabolisms, therefore a team of young people must be assembled to travel to the distant planet and save the earth. Dash is a twelve-year-old hopeful. He is scrappy, smart, physically fit, and a team player. Plus, his single mother and sister could really used the prize money if he is selected for the team. Dash must complete with seven other tweens to be selected for a team of four. His main competition is Anna, a nasty competitive girl, who will do whatever it takes to make the team. Dash makes friends with some other contestant and they cooperate even though they are suppose to be competing against each other. Dash gets a crushing blow that could disqualify him from being selected, even though he is performing quite well. The cast of characters making up the team are revealed and we follow them along on a dangerous mission. Who makes the team? What happens to the kids who are not selected? Where are the young people sent on their first mission and what amazing creature do they encounter? Who are the stowaways on the ship? What secrets are the government keeping from the adventurers. Read this first exciting series installment to find out!

Designed along the same lines as The Thirty-Nine Clues and The Spirit Animals, the Voyagers series follows the same format: Different popular children's authors for each volume in the series and an on-line component tying in with the book. The on-line feature will be a draw and it is well designed, offering coding activities, games, and bonus features to kids, which appear to be realistic to the mission. Dash is a bit of a stock comic book character, as is the evil Anna, but this works for the adventurous tone of the story. He is truly a hero and likable in the bargain. The characters (with the exception of Dash) are diverse, including a girl in a high-powered wheel chair, who doesn't let her physical limitations slow her down in any way. The action never stops and surprises lurk around every corner. Readers won't be able to stop reading once they start and they will be naturally led to the next installment Game of Flames, released last month). The competition to select the team makes up the first half of the book, the training of the team is glossed over, and then the book cuts right to the first mission. One of the surprises is that to save the earth the team must actually get components from six different planets, which will lead to one mission per book in the series. A perfect choice for reluctant readers and science fiction nerds alike, this series is sure to be popular. The third installment in the series, Omega Rising, is set to be released on January 3rd.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Creeps: Night of the Frankenfrogs

The Creeps: Night of the Frankenfrogs
Chris Schweizer
Abrams, 2015  122 pgs.
Grades 3-6
Graphic Novel
The Creeps Series #1

Meet the Creeps, a group of four intelligent misfits who attempt to keep the world save from malcontents, yet are often misunderstood and underappreciated. Our story opens with the Creeps working off yet another punishment for destroying school property while saving the school from a pudding monster. When sent to retrieve the frogs used in Biology for dissection, the gang discovers that the formally dead frogs are now very much alive and turned into attacking Frankenfrogs. The Creeps swing into action to defeat the evil beasts, even eliciting the help of eccentric former student/science nerd who works in a secret lair beneath the school. After many exciting, and gross, encounters with sewage and danger the Creeps track down the culprit who is gathering an army of Frankenfrogs. Is it the eccentric basement science nerd? Or maybe the new kid who seems slouchy and cool, but is revealed to be another science nerd? Or could it be someone the Creeps never suspected? Read the book to find out!

Schweizer writes and draws a new series of books sure to appeal to young people. The Creeps are lovable techno-misfits. Brainy kids will cheer for them and enjoy seeing nerds as heroes. Non-brainy kids will also enjoy this series for the action and gross-out humor. Schweizer has penned a winner that will both appeal to readers, as well as adults. Adults will appreciate the science element to the books, which demonstrates how experimentation can be fun and using your brain can help you figure out life's mysteries. Another factor to commend is that Schweizer offers the reader a diverse cast, which has been sorely lacking in graphic novels and is being demanded for by the book industry, the library world, and readers alike. One minor quibble: I had a hard time telling two of the characters apart and it took me a while to differentiate between them, leading to some confusion. There are a lot of characters within the short volume. As the series continues the reader will get to know everyone and this will be less of an issue. Pictures of the four Creeps on the back of the book with their names and special skill helped me keep at least these four characters straight and I referred to this key often in my reading. Is this the stuff of Shakespeare? Absolutely not. Will this be a hit with kids? Absolutely! Volume 2: The Trolls will Feast! is due out March, 2016.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Everything, Everything

Image result for everything yoonEverything, Everything
Nicola Yoon
Delacorte, 2015  320 pgs
Grades 9-Up
Realistic Fiction

Madeline Whittier is not a typical seventeen-year-old. She is cursed with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, a condition where she she has zero immune system and must remain in her air filtered house with no physical contact with the outside world. The only people she sees are her doctor mother and her nurse, Carla, who is her only friend. Maddy lost her father and brother in a car accident when just a baby and her mother has never fully recovered from the incident. The game changes when a cute teenage boy moves into the house next door and the two become friends, first through gestures, and then through e-mail and messaging. The boy, Olly, has troubles of his own. His alcoholic father has anger management issues and is both mentally and physically abusive to the family. Friendship leads to romance as Carla breaks the rules, allowing Olly entrance into the house. Eventually, Mom find out about Olly, Carla gets fired, and Maddy loses all computer privileges and remaining contact with the outside world. What should she do? Should Maddy play it safe, living half a life, or take a chance, risking her health and her mother's love? Maddy's choices and the fallout follow, leading the reader to an emotional and surprising conclusion.

More dead-girl fiction that is sure to appeal to readers of Fault in Our Stars and All the Bright Places. Maddy's actual disease is new to the genre and is sure to appeal to teenage girls. I remember watching the movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble with John Travolta over and over again as a young teenager and crying every time. Maddy has the John Travolta disease, but her mother has managed to turn the whole house into the plastic bubble. Maddy is a liakable character and the reader will both identify and root for her. She lives her life through reading and books and is especially naive about the ways of the world, which will also most likely appeal to the targeted audience. Olly is interesting and kind and the relationship is believable. The story itself is well crafted, reads quickly, and offers some unexpected plot twists. Yoon infuses the text with messages, e-mails, medical reports and airplane tickets, both to create interest and to move the plot along in a visual way, which teens will relate to. Everything, Everything is an addicting book and reads like eating potato chips: hard to stop. My only complaint is that it ends a little too unrealistically. I like the direction Yoon took towards the end, but felt that she sewed up Maddy's life a little too neatly, feeling obligated to offer Maddy a happy-ever-after. Everything, Everything has sold very well this fall and half of the copies owned by my library consortium are out, proving that the dead-girl genre is alive and well (pardon the bad pun). Teens girls will love this book and to its credit its a cut above the average fare.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible

Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible
Ursula Vernon
Penguin, 2015  247 pgs.
Grades 2-5
Humor/Fantasy
Hamster Princess Series #1

Veteran author/Illustrator Vernon, known for the popular Dragonbreath series, presents a series opener in the same graphic/text hybrid format. This series features a hamster princess named Harriet. Much like Sleeping Beauty, Harriet is cursed with sleep upon her twelfth birthday. A spell which can only be broken by a Prince's kiss. Harriet's parents try to keep knowledge of the curse from her. When they finally reveal her fate, imagine their surprise when Harriet is thrilled. She realizes that now she is invincible and no harm can come to her until the curse is fulfilled at age twelve. Harriet, who is not your typical drippy princess, hits the road with her trusty quail, taking on bad guys, specifically ogre-cats. She runs around the countryside fighting crime and having adventures until the time comes to face her twelfth birthday and drowsy fate. The evil fairy arrives and Harriet manages to fight back, infecting the evil fairy with the deep sleep instead of herself. The problem is, the rest of the castle, including Harriet's parents, are all sleeping. She must break the curse and save the day, which will take courage, determination, and fast thinking. Stay tuned for Harriet's next adventure based on the fairy tale the Twelve Dancing Princesses, Of Mice and Magic, coming in March, 2016.

Using the same format that she so effectively utilizes in the Dragonbreath series, Vernon creates a new comic/fiction hybrid series aimed at a female audience. Boys, who love the Dragonbreath series, will also enjoy it, but may need to get past the glitzy purple and pink cover. Harriet is not a damsel in distress. She is fast thinking and fearless. Tougher than the princes, Harriet and her quail companion kick butt wherever they go, outsmarting even the evil fairy. The action never stops. Nor does the humor. The book is laugh-out-loud funny with lots of puns and fairy tale references. Harriet turns for help to the "Crone of the Blighted Waste", which is a reference to Howl's Moving Castle, one of my favorite books, which I thought was pretty cool. The book is tightly written with a solid plot. Even though there are comic illustrations on every page which help to tell the story, this is no silly comic. Vernon does not cheap out on vocabulary and offers readers a quality book with both silly and sophisticated humor. Harriet the Invincible reads quickly and will appeal to both bookworms and reluctant readers alike. The sparkling cover is appealing and the book is flying off my library shelves. Maybe boys who love Dragonbreath will look past the pink and give it a try. This is a book to be enjoyed by anyone who cracks into it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Drowned City

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans
Don Brown
Houghton Mifflin, 2015  96 pgs
Grades 5-Up
Graphic Non-Fiction

Utilizing the same format as his critically acclaimed graphic account of the Great Depression titled The Great American Dust Bowl (see July 23, 2015's blog post) Brown focuses his amazing talents on Hurricane Katrina and its devastation on New Orleans in 2005. Brown is able to offer the facts from start to aftermath of the terrible storm, told through both text and comic illustrations. First person accounts, news articles, and extensive research work collectively to provide a well balanced and accurate picture of Katrina and the stories of those who survived and those who perished. Both heroes and villains emerge as Brown shows the exhausted efforts of the rescue workers, as well as those reluctant to help and people taking advantage of the situation for their own means. fourteen-hundred people lost their lives in the hurricane, as well as countless animals, marking it as one of the worst natural disasters in American history. The effects of the storm on both the city of New Orleans and how as a country we now handle natural disasters since the tragedy are explored. Commemorating the tenth anniversary of this monumental event, Brown is donating a part of the proceeds to New Orleans Habitat for Humanity. The book ends on a hopeful note; New Orleans is recovering, but there is still work to be done.The volume is rounded out with extensive source notes and a bibliography.

Can the graphic format serve to convey factual, non-fiction information? In the capable hands of Don Brown, you bet it can! In less than one-hundred pages and mostly through illustration Brown manages to tell the whole story and invites the reader to feel as if they are part of the crisis. Granted, I'm not a news hound, but I lived through this event while it was current and watched the coverage on the news. I can't think of much that Brown left out. The information is all there and conveyed in a way that young people will understand, often including first-person accounts. The comic illustrations and washed-out pallet, consisting mostly of earth tones, reflect the mood perfectly and hold up their own end of the narration in a way that text cannot. Because of the honest portrayal of the many deaths, including the many pets that perished, and the bad behavior displayed by some of the players in this drama, I would not recommend this book for children younger than ten, even though at first glance it seems appropriate for a young audience. Older elementary through adult will appreciate this book and walk away having learned something in the bargain. I can't wait to see where in history Brown turns next.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Sympony for the Dead

Symphony for the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovitch and the Siege of Leningrad
M.T. Anderson
Candlewick, 2015
Grades 9-Up
Non-Fiction

M.T. Anderson, acclaimed author of the Octavian Nothing books, presents a factual account of the creation of Shostakovich's seventh symphony, placing it in its historical backdrop of the seize of Leningrad during World War II. The reader leans a brief history of the USSR and its relationship to Nazi Germany, eventually leading to the longest seize, and certainly one of the brutalist, in world history. Shostakovich, one of the most important composers of the twentieth century, initially welcomes the Communist Revolution, lives in fear of Stalin's purging, endues the loss of friends and colleagues, and finally, faces starvation of himself and his family as his home city of Leningrad fall under Nazi control. Shostakovich and his wife and children manage to escape, but both his and his wife's extended families are left behind to freeze and starve. The Seventh Symphony was begun in Leningrad in the early days of the war, briefly lost while Shostakovich was fleeing, and eventually recovered and completed much to world acclaim. What follows is a harrowing account of propaganda, suffering, starvation, and Nazi cruelty. The human instinct to survive and the fortitude of the Russian people is displayed in this glimpse into recent history that it practically too unbelievable to be true. 

Very little is written about the Russian front of World War II and, specifically, the seize of Leningrad for young people, which is surprising because it is an amazing and fascinating chapter of world history. Somewhat familiar with the Russian front, I had no idea of the extent of the siege of Leningrad and the horrors the Nazis inflicted on the Russian people, who they considered to be sub-human. Beyond an account of the war, this is a book about music and its power to inspire. People were willing to die to protect, distribute and perform this important symphony. The symphony, itself, begs to be listened to upon reading this account and may expose young people to classical music beyond Mozart and Bach. Photos help to tell the tale and place the book withing its historic framework. Anderson certainly did his research. The book ends with extensive notes, bibliography, and index. Although carefully researched and not fictionalized, Symphony for the Dead reads like fiction. It is too brutal to be true, yet the account is carefully documented. Teens will devour this book, much as I did. Once you start reading, you can't get the book out of your mind, and you must keep going. Be aware: some of the accounts are graphic and the starving people resort to cannibalistic means in order to survive, which may disturb more sensitive readers. Another potential problem is getting teens to pick up this book and give it a try. It may be a hard initial sell, but well worth the effort.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Rider Woofson: The Case of the Missing Tiger's Eye

Rider Woofson: The Case of the Missing Tiger's Eye
Walker Styles
Ben Whitehouse, Illustrator
Simon and Schuster, 2016 119 pgs.
Grades 2-5
Mystery/Humor
Rider Woofson Series #1

Laughs abound in this pot-boiler of a series opener by new author, Walter Styles. The action takes place in the city of Pawston, the animal capital of the world. All is quiet, but the P.I. Pack awaits the next adventure thrust upon them from the criminal underbelly of the city. The pack consists of Rider, the leader, a typical old-school dog detective and his three quirky, yet resourceful buddies. The team doesn't have long to wait. An important and valuable statue called "The Tiger's Eye" goes missing from a jewelry store across town. The P.I. Pack jumps into the case starting with the owner of the store, Mr. Meow (the book's sole feline) and the ancient security guard, Frenchie. A banana peel clue leads the gang to a theater across the street to see a performance of The Banana Splits, an acrobatic monkey troop. What ensues is a chase of zany screwball proportions culminating with the rescue of The Tiger's Eye and capture of the henchmen monkeys. Yet, the true mastermind of the crime manages to escape. This leads the reader to the next installment in the series Something Smells Fishy, released simultaneously.

Styles offers a new series right on target for children discovering chapter books. The action never stops as the P.I. Gang hunts for clues and chases bad guys using their kooky inventions and ingenuity. Readers new to the genre will be trained to read mysteries and follow clues and suspects in this traditional, yet fresh and funny series opener. The puns and groaners are plentiful and will keep the target audience in stitches. Cartoon-like illustrations appear on practically every page and help to keep the reader entertained and turning pages. The print is large, the margins wide, and the chapters are short with cliff hangers, just right for encouraging new chapter book readers. First in a series, the reader will have somewhere to go once the book is completed and a chapter except from the next installment helps to create interest. Although one member of the P.I. Pack is female, the rest of the characters are male. The book will mostly appeal to boys, but girls will like it too. Because the characters are animals, diversity is not an issue. It is interesting that there is only one cat and he is a shady character. As a cat lover I should take offense at this, but I couldn't because this book is just too dog-gone funny (sorry, couldn't resist:). Is this book War and Peace? Certainly not, but it will serve to entice reluctant readers and entertain as well as encourage kids to keep reading.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The Rest of Us Just Live Here
Patrick Ness
Harper Collins, 2015  317 pgs
Grades 9-Up
Fantasy

Mikey is a semi-typical kid living in a small north-western town. He and his friends live within the shadow of the "indie kids"; hipster kids with funky names who have fantastical battles and adventures with magical creatures, all within the backdrop of boring small town life. Mickey's mother is a politician on her way from state government to the national senate. Mickey's OCD, which was formally under control, is rearing its ugly head, as his sister Mel battles with her chronic anorexia. Alcoholic Dad is no help, so it is up to the teens to keep their family afloat and make life as normal as possible for their younger sister. Meanwhile, Mikey's long time crush, Henna is suddenly available and Mikey wants to make his move before graduation separates them. Just as Mikey is ready to strike, new boy Nathan moves into town and steals Henna's attention. Mickey's best friend, Jared, is a demi-God, a product from a generations ago indie kid romance, and is worships by everything feline and has powers to make wounds less painful. Mikey faces the usual end-of-high-school problems, generally revolving around his fear of change and leaving both his home and his friends, all while battling his OCD, worrying about his sisters, and trying to interpret confusing signals from Henna. Meanwhile, the latest war between the indie kids and the mythical god-like creatures bent on taking over the world is underway. Both stories collide by the end in a satisfying conclusion. Is Nathan the new boy somehow connected to the indie kid battle? How will Mikey's problems work out? Does he ever connect with Henna? How do Jared's powers apply to the situation at hand? These and other questions will be answered by the end of this unusual novel.

I would love to visit the brain of Patrick Ness. He writes truly creative stories for young people with inventive plots. Just when I think there is nothing new under the sun, I read the latest novel by Ness and realize their are fresh stories to tell. His latest is a response to the influx of vampires/zombies/mythological creatures recently clogging up teen literature since Twilight was published ten years ago. The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a typical realistic problem novel told within the background of the supernatural. Unlike most teen stories, the mundane is the main thread of the plot, while the supernatural story line is the lesser plot line and does not directly include the main characters, at least for the bulk of the novel. The plot of the indie kids is told only through sensationalized chapter headings. Jared's healing abilities and god-like status among the cat population are told matter of factually and seem probable as a normal ability. The story of a boring small town that is visited by a different supernatural element every generation and experienced only by kids with trendy names (such as Finn or Satchel) is tongue-in-cheek and very fresh and funny to someone who reads a lot of teen fiction. I'm just not sure if teens would get the humor or the subtle way the book makes fun of the teen magical creature/adventure/romance genre. I think it can be enjoyed by less sophisticated teen readers, but its full potential can only be reached by someone who gets the joke. That said, Mikey's problems are realistically told and we will route for him, although he is a bit of a whiny character. Jared the best friend is far more interesting, but then again, isn't the side kick usually more interesting in teen fiction? I found it a bit off putting that Mikey's sister, Mel starts dating a doctor at the hospital. Even though she is over eighteen (she missed a year of school due to her anorexia) she nevertheless is still in high school and an emotional mess as she is still dealing with her family and eating issues. Can't the doctor find a grown-up to date? All in all, a really fun and unique book for someone who reads a lot of teen literature, but maybe not the best bet for literal readers.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Poppy

Poppy
Avi
Harper Collins, 1995  161 pgs.
Grades 3-5
Animal Fantasy/Adventure
The Poppy Stories series

Poppy is a little field mouse who lives with her family in an abandoned house in Dimwood Forest. The forest is ruled by Mr. Ocax, an owl whom the mice must ask permission before moving freely through the forest. One fateful night Poppy and her bold boyfriend Rye venture to the top of the hill to dance in the moonlight without first asking Mr. Ocax. The intolerant predator swoops down and consumes Rye. Poppy manages to escape. Upon returning home her family is shocked by both the death of Rye and the lack of permission asked and granted, but a bigger problem looms. The abandoned house in which the mice reside is getting too cramped and cannot support their growing family. Poppy's father hears of a new house across the forest. When permission is asked of Mr. Ocax to cross the forest it is denied. Poppy takes it upon herself to cross the dangerous forest to explore the new house. On route the brave mouse encounters many dangers, including almost drowning and many near escapes from the dreaded owl. While hiding in a hollow log, Poppy meets a much feared porcupine named Ereth. Poppy has been raised to fear porcupines, a fear propelled by Mr. Ocax, but Ereth becomes a friend and agrees to lead Poppy to the new house. Once there Poppy sees that the home is perfect and realizes exactly why Mr. Ocax doesn't want the mice to journey to this place and encounters and owl's greatest fear. A final battle ensues between Poppy and Mr. Ocax, after which one warrior does not survive.

I have rediscovered Poppy after selecting it for my December book discussion group for third and fourth grade. What a great book! Avi isn't considered one of the best writers for children for nothing. This is an enjoyable and exciting animal fantasy totally perfect for the target audience. Reading Poppy is like being wrapped up in a blanket. It is a traditional tale reminiscent of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nihm or the Redwall series (although for a younger audience) and has a timeless quality to it. The book is a proper length for the audience and generous illustrations contributed by Caldecott winner Brian Floca add entertainment and help to break up the text. Poppy grows from a timid mouse to a brave and independent thinker. She discovers that the world is not what she thought it was and finds the courage to unravel the truth. Children will be inspired to tackle their own fears, learn to overcome preconceived notions, have the courage to not follow the crowd, and face the bully in their own lives. Poppy may be a mouse in a forest, but her plight is universal and will offer kids courage and comfort. Besides this, the story is fun and adventurous. Several plot twists will encourage children to keep turning pages, as will several battle scenes. The characters, although animals, are fully developed, interesting, and relatable. Good overcomes evil and all ends as it should in DImwood Forest, all while leaving room for the next installment in the series.